How to Condense Your Novel into a Successful Synopsis

By Elizabeth Heiter

Writing a compelling synopsis can be one of the hardest things to do.  As authors, we’re used to having 80-100,000 words to tell a story, and sometimes we agonize over cutting hundreds or thousands of words in the editing process just to get there.  So, to condense it all into 1-10 pages?  It’s not an easy task, but it’s necessary.

When considering a writer’s first novel, agents want to see a synopsis as part of the proposal package (the rest of that proposal package includes a query letter and often the first three chapters of the book).  Even after you’ve sold, it’s often part of the package that sells your next books (sometimes before you write the books themselves).

How long should it be? Some agents and editors expect one synopsis page per each 10,000 words in the novel; others ask for a 1-2 page total synopsis.  Whatever the case, you need to be able to not only tell the full story in that space, but also tell it in an interesting enough way to get them to ask for more.

But how?

First, it’s important to know the basics:

  • Write the synopsis in third person, past tense, no matter what you use in the book itself.
  • Always check the requirements of the requesting agent or editor, but a general rule of thumb is between 7 and 10 pages for the synopsis of a novel.
  • You must tell the full story.  That includes the big twists and the ending – the agent or editor wants to know that the plot holds together and that the main character is interesting enough to keep readers’ attention.

I’ve written synopses both before and after finishing the actual book — and with varying knowledge about what will happen in the story itself.  If you’ve always been a pantser (you don’t outline, but let the story unfold as you write it) and you begin selling on proposal, this can be challenging because you’ll have to figure out the big points of the story before you write it.  If you’re big on outlining first, sometimes the challenge can be knowing what to put in and what to leave out.

Some of the key things I always try to do when writing a proposal:

  • Start with a hook.  Just like a query letter, starting out strong will pull in your first reader (the agent or editor who needs to be as excited about the book as you are).  My method is to put the tag line right at the top of the synopsis.
  • Stick to the high points.  You don’t have room for every piece of the story (and you don’t want to convolute the synopsis with too much information).  The plot points I talk about in my synopsis are only the ones needed to give a high-level overview of the story.  (But don’t over-simplify either; remember to include the things that make your book unique.)
  • Don’t overwhelm them with names.  Try to keep the names to a minimum – your protagonist, antagonist and a few other key players.  Everyone else should just get mentioned by role, because when you’re trying to condense a novel into a few pages, too many names can distract and confuse the reader.
  • Each paragraph should entice.  I treat the paragraphs in my synopsis the way I do the openings and endings of each scene or chapter in a book – I fill them with hooks.  That way, every time the agent or editor finishes one paragraph, they’re left with a surprise or a twist that makes them move on to the next one without stopping.
  • Keep the tension high.  As much as you can, it’s a good idea to make the tone of the synopsis sound like the tone of your book.  With a suspense novel, you also want to make sure the synopsis showcases all the things a reader can expect in your book, and that includes twists and turns, red herrings and a lot of tension.
  • Don’t forget about character development.  Sometimes, it can be easy to get lost in plot when writing a synopsis, but don’t forget to also give a good sense of who your primary characters are and why the agent or editor should care about them.  It’s also helpful to show how the protagonist will grow as he or she interacts with the plot.
  • End strong.  Have you ever heard the saying that the opening line of your book will make someone read that book and the closing line will make them read your next one?  Don’t forget that the closing of your synopsis should be just as strong and interesting as your opening.  Hook them from the beginning and at the end, make it impossible for them not to want your story!

Good luck, and happy submitting!

Critically acclaimed author ELIZABETH HEITER likes her suspense to feature strong heroines, chilling villains, psychological twists, and a little bit (or a lot!) of romance. Her research has taken her into the minds of serial killers, through murder investigations, and onto the FBI Academy’s shooting range.

To learn more about Heiter’s most recent novel, click on the cover below: